"Who did you talk to when you ate dinner? It must be boring eating by yourself," Mom said, after my first solo trip to the UK.
"I talk to whoever is there," I explained, adding anecdotes about the graphic artist from Brighton, the Swiss student, the tax man from Yorkshire, and the Brazilian doctor I'd met on my trip.
Mom looked skeptical. I've since learned that only those of us who travel on our own seem to understand how easy it is to slip into conversations on train platforms and parking decks. We also share the smug certainty of knowing that it's always possible to purchase one ticket to a West End or Broadway show or squeeze one body through the crowd at a bar. Subway cars and trams always seem to have enough room for one more person.
Despite the Americanization of everything via the Internet and pop culture, the world is full of interesting places where English is not widely spoken – a circumstance that makes it hard to visit if you can't communicate with the locals. For years, my solo travel was restricted to the English-speaking world with an occasional foray into Israel where years of Hebrew school came in handy. I felt like a grounded teenager when my travels were restricted to countries where I already spoke the language.
I longed to see Lisbon, panted for Paris, and romanticized Russia. I saw some of those terrains during tandem travels and others with tour groups, but I missed the benefits of solitary touring. I like it when my own whim or want is what I respond to, when I can skip the preplanned pub to stroll along a riverbank, or leave a museum that doesn't live up to guidebook expectations without negotiating with a companion who lives for one more room full of antiquities.
Then I learned about language immersion programs. I'd always associated them with student-age travelers accustomed to discomfort. Many language immersion participants are of university age, but, much to my surprise, the number of students over forty is escalating, and discomfort is a matter of choice.
Language Studies Abroad pairs programs to students seeking academic credit, or just as easily arranges learning vacations for anyone, any age. Students from 16 to 86 have traveled with LSA's assistance. Language immersion programs are ideal for folks traveling alone. Other students are often veteran solo travelers. In fact, Chris Cote, owner of Language Studies Abroad, got involved in the company because of her own experiences as a single traveler. The majority of the other participants aren't paired. You learn a second language faster without a fallback partner to talk to in your native tongue. In business since 1985, LSA represents schools in fifteen countries, and the company's American staff members visit all the schools frequently.
I chose Language Studies Abroad to make my arrangements because this company's specialty is matching students with exactly the right program to meet their needs. Do you need a host family that serves kosher food? Are you a night owl who doesn't want to disturb folks who rise with the sun? LSA will match you with a compatible host family.
Kim Haber at LSA says, "We can arrange the right environment for any student. We had a student who had to practice piano for an hour every day, and we put her in a household with a piano. We arrange home stays for vegetarians or people with allergies. As long as we know what you need we can find a fit."
If staying with a family isn't what you want, LSA also offers a range of other lodging options near your school. Your choices range from basic budget accommodations under fifty dollars to resort style properties with multiple star ratings.
You can study Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, French, Italian, or Spanish. I chose Russian . . . Russia had always loomed large in my imagination with fairytale vistas of river and ice reflecting the Winter Palace at St Petersburg. For much of my life the city had crouched behind the Iron Curtain. Biographies of Pushkin, images of the Imperial Jewels, and rumors of a city that rivaled Venice became a reality to me last winter.
At a cost of only US$650 per week, I was to receive language lessons, a free walking tour of St Petersburg, ample orientation to the confusing culture, a single room with breakfast and dinner, and an airport transfer right to my home stay.
LSA provided me with important information beforehand: I knew it was appropriate that I bring my home stay family a small gift and that I shouldn't wear shoes inside a Russian home. I knew I'd be able to purchase lunch for around two or three dollars at Linden and Denz Language School in their on-site cafeteria. To me Russia seemed as intimidating as she was intriguing. Russia is not Europe. She remains, as Winston Churchill said, "a mystery wrapped in an enigma."
Despite decades of travel that had taken me throughout Europe, I felt a quiver of apprehension when I boarded an Aeroflot flight at London's Gatwick Airport. The flight attendants seemed to have stern faces. I later learned that one of the cultural differences between the USA and Russia involves smiling.
My language instructor, Stas, explained: "We smile when we are truly happy, when something marvelous has happened. When an American or European approaches a Russian to ask the time and he smiles, we think he's a hypocrite. Like he is delighted to be asking us the time?"
A representative of the school greeted me at the airport, escorted me to my lodgings and answered my questions. Walter Denz, the owner of the school, said that "We take very good care of our students." For example, he explained that if some students seem more concerned about safety than others, staff members watch out for them and make sure they feel secure.
The staff of Linden and Denz carefully explained the ins and outs of St Petersburg: I was warned not to engage in drinking competitions with locals – foreigners never win. I had a complete explanation of public transport, including the times when the bridges that link the city are inaccessible. I knew what it would cost to get into the Hermitage and how to order coffee in a café.
Walter Denz emphasized the need for learning the language. "Guidebooks," he explained, "are almost useless in Russia. Things are changing so rapidly that by the time you arrive the restaurant has closed, the store has moved, and the train schedule is obsolete."
"Russia," he continued "is not like India where so many tourists have come and gone that many people know a bit of English. If you want to travel around the country, you must know how to speak Russian."
As a single female traveler I was relieved to find myself in an all-female household. Marcia works in the travel industry; her younger sister, Paulina, is a student. Their mom, a dancer, was on tour during my stay. Marcia and I compared cultures. Paulina helped me with my homework, and I'm sure I'll always remember with a chuckle one hilarious conversation where I kept confusing the Russian word for man with the word for automobile.
By the middle of my first week, I felt comfortable taking the metro around St Petersburg on my own. This is no small accomplishment – unlike much of the world, there aren't always English speakers eager to assist on the streets near the Neva. Because of this learning experience, my world has expanded. Many parts of Eastern Europe have second-language Russian speakers, the confusing Cyrillic alphabet is now accessible, and I can travel alone to places that simply were not options before.
I like the way my teacher put it, so I'll leave the last word to him. In his own eloquent style Stas would say: "Language is what makes us human. It is how we access the universe."